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NBA excited to bring unique event to Las Vegas: ‘This is different’

Updated December 7, 2023 - 7:10 pm

Lights, camera, basketball.

On a Bomb-Pop colored court inside T-Mobile Arena.

The NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament descended Wednesday upon the Las Vegas Strip, where the Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans are competing for the first-ever NBA Cup. The semifinals Thursday pitting the Bucks against the Pacers and the Lakers against the Pelicans count toward the regular-season standings, bringing Las Vegas its most consequential NBA games in decades.

And with them perhaps a prospective preview of the league’s future in Sin City.

“It’s a sports town so hopefully I can bring my franchise here some day. That’s the ultimate,” Lakers superstar LeBron James said through a grin, affirming yet again his desire to own the city’s franchise should the league eventually expand.

“They know what they’re watching. They show a lot of support. Sports are gigantic here right now. And they definitely support their clubs here.”

The NBA and Las Vegas are like the flirty, crushing couple that won’t yet turn a fulfilling fling into a committed long-term relationship.

The league’s annual Summer League has occupied UNLV’s basketball buildings since 2004. USA Basketball also regularly conducts training camps there before international competitions. The WNBA’s Aces relocated from San Antonio in 2017, while the G League Ignite moved to headquarters in Henderson last season after leaving Walnut Creek, California.

The Lakers almost always play a preseason game in Las Vegas as well.

Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged publicly in June that expansion to Las Vegas “is a possibility” when the NBA renews its media rights. The league’s current deals expire after the 2024-25 season.

The NBA hasn’t played a non-exhibition game in Las Vegas since 1992, however. Rioting in Los Angeles after four police officers were acquitted for allegedly beating Rodney King caused the league to move a Lakers playoff game against the Portland Trail Blazers to Thomas &Mack Center.

The NBA’s players have long ebbed and flowed through Las Vegas for club basketball tournaments and other similar showcases.

But “Vegas in December, this is different,” Bucks star guard Damian Lillard said.

“You see all the hotels and when you pull up, it’s like ‘Man, we actually in Vegas. It’s crazy. Like what do I do? Do I just go to sleep or what?’” Lillard added.

“It’s almost like a break from the season but not a break from the season. We get to take a little trip. … Being here just feels good for our team.”

Credit belongs to Silver, who implemented the In-Season Tournament to invigorate the sixth-month, 82-game regular season. Its semifinalists last month navigated a four-game group stage, during which the flashy, colored courts distinguished the significance of the proceedings.

A $500,000 purse goes to the players on the winning team after Saturday’s final. That’s fueled the intensity that’s brought the four semifinalists this far.

“Before I go back to Milwaukee, I’ll probably spend it at the casino downstairs in our hotel,” Bucks standout Giannis Antetokounmpo said, joking. “The NBA did a great job just building hype around (the In-Season Tournament) and making it different from a regular-season game. … It’s great. I think it just brings a little bit more attention to the game of basketball.”

A little bit more attention to Las Vegas, too.

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on X.

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